Monday, April 20, 2015

Touring METRO's new rail lines: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

UPDATE 5/2/15: This got turned into a Sunday op-ed feature in the Chronicle.

Today I got to take a media preview tour of Metro's new Southeast/Purple and East/Green lines, which are opening to the public May 23rd.  Metro brought a great team to give us the tour and answer our questions.  Photos below for your enjoyment, but here are my thoughts categorized into the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly:

The Good
  • Fun to ride with really well done stops, including nice art and signage, same as the existing lines.  I used the Red line last week to attend the Astrodome 50th anniversary party (followed my Miller Outdoor Theater), and I have to say it was pretty awesome bypassing the traffic congestion of 25,000+ people attending that event.
  • Pretty quick ride: from EaDo near the Dynamo stadium, it's 6 minutes to the current end of the East Line and 17 minutes to the Palm Center at the end of the Southeast line, although it should be noted we didn't stop at the intermediate stops.
  • UH gets 3 stops which is really good access to most parts of the campus, including the new football stadium.
  • The townhome and apartment boom in the East End is even more impressive than I was aware.  I'm not sure how much of it is related to the new lines, but METRO is certainly happy to take some of the credit.  But there's a problem...
The Bad
  • I think they spaced the first two stops on the Southeast/Purple line (EaDo and Leeland/Third Ward) too far apart to effectively serve the booming townhomes out there.  The EaDo stop is right next to Dynamo/BBVA Compass Stadium and 59, and Leeland is almost next to 45S, with no stops in between. Google Maps says they're about 1.1 miles apart.  Most of the people in those townhomes are going to have a serious walk to use the lines.  I think Metro is going to need to look at building an intermediate stop. Update: Good news - Metro board member Christof Spieler has tweeted me that space for a future station has been left near Ennis and Walker.
  • The East End/Green line won't truly be complete all the way to the Magnolia Park Transit center until the bridge over the freight rail tracks is finished in Spring 2016 (estimated).  Right now it stops at Altic/Howard Hughes.  I asked about the name of that stop - did you know the Howard Hughes was a big developer of the East End?  I had no idea - pretty cool.
  • Check out the bottom two photos below.  See the problem?  UH's new stadium is called TDECU, but the stop is called Robertson Stadium.  They have the same problem with the Reliant/NRG stop, and may have it in the future with Minute Maid and BBVA Compass stadiums.  I was told it's a Board level decision, and they're trying to figure out a policy with all of these frequent stadium renamings.  It's expensive to rename a stop when you consider all the maps that have to change.  I say they charge the company that bought the naming rights for the switchover.  But another option would be to pick generic stop names that are likely to be stable: UH, Astros, Dynamo, and Texans/Rodeo Stadiums.
The Ugly
  • Final cost numbers are $823 million for the 6.6 mile Southeast/Purple line and $587 million for the 3.3 mile East/Green line, for a total of $1.4 billion dollars (!).  To work that out on a per-mile basis, it has to be noted that both lines overlap about a mile downtown, so really only 8.9 miles of new track was created (not 9.9).  That works out to $158 million per mile, folks. Ouch. As nice as they are, that's a hard number to stomach. Did I mention this was the ugly section?
  • Some friendly advice to Metro: given the numbers I just mentioned, I don't recommend continuing to promote the new Taco Bell next to UH as economic development spurred by the new line.  The scale disparity invites unflattering comparisons and humor... ;-)
Overall, I continue to stand by my original thoughts that this money would have been better spent on other transit projects, like an improved and more extensive HOT lane network and Park & Rides with more express service to more job centers - or at least a nice cross-town University line.  I don't expect these lines to generate nearly the ridership of the original Main St. line.  But there's no going back in time, so let's hope these lines can be made as successful as possible to get a return-on-taxpayer-investment, especially when it comes to neighborhood investments and redevelopment.  As UH continues to improve as a Tier One University and generate more on-campus living and activity, I could certainly see the potential for a lot of interesting redevelopment along the Southeast line between the campus and downtown, as well as adding new energy to downtown's nightlife scene.  And the East line may also grow in popularity because the rest of the inner loop has gotten so unaffordable.  We'll just have to wait and see how it develops...


















Labels: , ,

30 Comments:

At 12:23 AM, April 21, 2015, Anonymous Adam @ AdamChudy.com said...

I live between Westheimer/Richmond near Gessner. Considering where the bulk of the major employment centers are (Energy Corridor, Galleria, Downtown, Med Center), it's really inexcusable that an east/west line wasn't prioritized. The impact would have been so much bigger. I'd happily catch a line to work.

 
At 1:43 AM, April 21, 2015, Anonymous Rich said...

Waiting for light rail to expand and cover regions where it’s most needed (i.e. towards the Galleria and Katy) is like watching paint dry, for reasons analyzed additionally at:

http://www.facebook.com/hmrdev

How can we force Metro to accomplish more with rail expansion with our tax dollars, so that folks like Congressman Culberson will see fit to get onboard rail expansion despite our nation's growing financial insolvency? Tax incentives and competitive bidding fortification come to mind but details warrant elaboration. Any thoughts?

 
At 5:44 AM, April 21, 2015, Blogger Kyle said...

Howard Hughes is buried here in Houston. Just a trivia tidbit.

 
At 7:52 AM, April 21, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yeah, I've seen his grave at the cemetery, and I knew he was born here, but I didn't know he ever did anything of significance in Houston, especially in the East End.

 
At 9:36 AM, April 21, 2015, Anonymous Purple City said...

Y'all can't complain that METRO didn't prioritize an East-West line when said line has been repeatedly blocked by GOP politicos.

 
At 9:50 AM, April 21, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The University line is dead, and mostly because Metro LIED about where it would run.

 
At 10:08 AM, April 21, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is the expected loss per passenger? In San Fransisco each passenger costs BART about 5 dollars. When a new large office building was built near a BART station, the city council passed a tax on that building to reimburse BART for the additional cost the increased ridership would cost BART.

 
At 10:22 AM, April 21, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a joke. $1.4 billion just to shuttle thugs around. Total waste of money, and the Metro does a poor job of policing who uses it. Thanks to Uber I can avoid ever having to subject myself to the trash on the metro.

 
At 11:07 AM, April 21, 2015, Anonymous Chris Alexander said...

From Wikipedia: "The huge main plant for Hughes Tool located in Houston, Texas, fronting Harrisburg Blvd., had grown to be one of the biggest oil tool manufacturers in the World. It had the latest, largest, and most automated equipment for foundries, forging, heat treating, and machining anywhere. At its peak during the Texas Oil Boom, it was a center for manufacturing, design, research, metallurgy, and engineering for oil field technologies. This included tool bits and tool joints critical for oil drilling, some of the first technologies for ram blast bits for drilling in mines, geothermal drilling, and a hydraulic jackhammer known as the Hughes Impactor.[3] It even had a fully functioning oil drilling rig inside its main research lab where any kind of rock bit could be tested on any kind of rock, up to and including granite."

Hughes built a lot of employee housing in the blocks around the plant. My grandmother lived in one, a modest duplex cottage, during WWII. The house still stands.

 
At 11:11 AM, April 21, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The argument over who's more right or wrong (Metro or dumbass/bribester Culberson) is dead. Going forward it's all about MetroRail to the Galleria, Southwest and Northwest Houston and the airports, Culberson be damned (or at least voted out/over). Every city that has rail had to overcome a 'Culberson'...and so has/will Houston. Rail always outlasts/outlives the turds that stand in its way, even as the turds cash in/benefit from their temporary (albeit pro-longed) obstruction. Rail continues to grow in Houston, Culberson be damned.

 
At 11:14 AM, April 21, 2015, Anonymous Chris Alexander said...

Many people predicted low ridership for the Red Line before it opened. Hasn't turned out that way. Won't turn out that way for the new lines, either. Twenty years from now Houstonians will look back on today's resistance to rail as a tragicomic curiosity of history.

 
At 11:30 AM, April 21, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'm more concerned about the opposite scenario, Chris: in ten years, we'll all be ordering up cheap self-driving taxis on our phones to go point-to-point directly where we want to go, and the rail lines will be empty white elephant curiosities.

 
At 12:14 PM, April 21, 2015, Anonymous Jonas said...

The Grand Parkway is $1 billion per mile and is literally a road to nowhere. Comparatively ~$150 million is not a bad deal, considering how many people are served by these lines.

 
At 12:20 PM, April 21, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Sorry, no it is most certainly not $1 billion per mile (maybe in total). It will also serve far more people, and make money from tolls while doing it.

 
At 12:24 PM, April 21, 2015, Blogger James said...

Saying the rail lines cost $150M per mile is misleading. The construction also included street reconstruction, storm and sanitary sewer upgrades, and water line work that the city would have had to undertake anyway. Remember the shape North Main was is before light rail?

 
At 2:59 PM, April 21, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Tory. Great blog. I have been following for a few years now. I tend to disagree with your idea that self driving vehicles will make an impact within the next decade, sufficiently enough to stop all immediate efforts towards building mass transit/rail. Even though the technology will be ready within the next decade, people and infrastructure will not. I believe that self driving car will only be effective in significantly reducing congestion when self driving cars are near 100% of the vehicle population. Barriers in the short term will include the mixing of self driving and people driven vehicles, the lack of mental trust of people of driverless cars, the horrible conditions of our roads, and etc. I don't see any meaning transition until a generation of people passes by. That is a long time to wait and the reality is that we needed something yesterday. By the way, HOVs and park and rides are intermediate solutions that will not solve the problem in the long term. It does help though.

 
At 4:47 PM, April 21, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's misleading to exclude the fact that the $1.4 billion includes $900 million in federal grant money that was awarded explicitly for this project.

 
At 5:29 PM, April 21, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

If that is the federal grant number, I think that would also include the north line extension, which would significantly increase that $1.4b number.

 
At 5:31 PM, April 21, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks Anon. Transit commutes nationwide are longer than car commutes, on average. The transit commute is worthwhile mainly due to the productivity boost of not driving - but self-driving cars also solve that problem. In addition, Uber already has a service that will pool people together to be even cheaper. And I don't understand how managed lanes are not a long term solution? Those buses and shuttles could also be self-driving, and far more flexible than fixed rail lines.

 
At 8:32 PM, April 21, 2015, Anonymous Chris Alexander said...

Many people who ride light rail can't afford to be ordering up Uber, or buying or leasing self-driving cars. Such assumptions only arise within a cocoon of exclusionary privilege. Something that might work for some people is to link light rail and street transit with car share, like bike share but with relatively short-range electric cars powered by solar charging stations. We have to move more radically away from both gasoline-burning single-occupancy vehicles and coal-based electric power, whether you approve or not. It is the car that is the dinosaur, not the train. Or else gridlock is unavoidable.

 
At 9:03 PM, April 21, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The estimate is that self-driving taxis will run about $0.50/mile in today's dollars. $1.50 for a Metro fare is 80% tax subsidized, so it's really almost $10 of spending. If Metro offered the same subsidy to the poor for self-driving taxis, they could go almost 20 miles for the same spend.

And that $0.50/mile is for a private ride - be willing to share with their pooling software, and it can be much cheaper. Transit systems will either cease to exist, or will just be fleets of these vehicles. And they can certainly be electric, or natural gas powered.

 
At 9:20 AM, April 22, 2015, Blogger Andrew said...

"The Grand Parkway is $1 billion per mile and is literally a road to nowhere."

Uhhhhhhhhhh... no. The total cost of the Hwy 290 to Hwy 59/I-69 section is $1.1 billion. The total distance 38 miles. Referencing my 3rd grade math skills, that cost is $28.9 million/mile and paid for by people who use it with no subsidies or tax increases. So you can complain all you want, but it didn't cost YOU a dime until you drive on it.

"Y'all can't complain that METRO didn't prioritize an East-West line when said line has been repeatedly blocked by GOP politicos."

No. The citizen voters put the kibosh on rail with the 2012 METRO referendum specifying no funds to be used on rail until at least 2025. You want to look for blame, check the mirror.

"What a joke. $1.4 billion just to shuttle thugs around. Total waste of money, and the Metro does a poor job of policing who uses it. Thanks to Uber I can avoid ever having to subject myself to the trash on the metro."

I bet you're fun at parties.

"Twenty years from now Houstonians will look back on today's resistance to rail as a tragicomic curiosity of history."

If you think rail will still be favored as mass transit in 20 years compared to self-driving cars, Blockbuster circa 1999 would like to have a chat with you.

"Saying the rail lines cost $150M per mile is misleading. The construction also included street reconstruction, storm and sanitary sewer upgrades, and water line work that the city would have had to undertake anyway?"

No, it's fair to say $150MM/mile. We would have said the same per-mile number for any work in the area, road or rail.

"By the way, HOVs and park and rides are intermediate solutions that will not solve the problem in the long term."

Why? The HOV lanes have been around since I was a kid. My dad used them to commute very day for decades. I now use them every day to get to work (and I sleep while doing it... the METRO commuter buses are quite comfy). Building rail along each major Houston highway for commuters would be an exercise in setting fire to money. We already have rail and railcars going down each major Houston highway... instead of steel wheels, they're tires.

 
At 12:33 AM, April 23, 2015, Anonymous Rich said...

>>>The citizen voters put the kibosh on rail with the 2012 METRO referendum specifying no funds to be used on rail until at least 2025. You want to look for blame, check the mirror.<<<

Has anyone here seen a more confusingly worded referendum / ballot item than the 2012 Houston Metro one? Here are the wording and the ramifications of Yes or No votes:

http://supporthoustontransit.org/2012/

http://www.freepresshouston.com/when-no-means-yes/

Rail fans voted against rail without even knowing it. How about a re-do?


 
At 11:45 AM, May 19, 2015, Blogger John Hollis said...

You houstonians just dont get it. I guess cities like atlanta, dallas , denver, chicago, Seattle , DC , all got it wrong huh, mr gattis

 
At 11:52 AM, May 19, 2015, Blogger John Hollis said...

Rail works an your not a major city unless u have it. Time for Houston to jump on board. And stop worrying about other peoples money, rail funding isn't coming out of your pocket. An this talk about driverless cars for commuters, really, what a joke, not won't be feasible for another 40years.

 
At 12:14 PM, May 19, 2015, Blogger Andrew said...

Ok fine. Let's say driverless cars are actually 40 years out (despite all major car companies having them out on the roads RIGHT NOW). Our city cannot even THINK of rail for another 10 years because of the 2012 METRO referendum. You can cry all you want, but it is illegal for METRO to spend any money from their general mobility program (source: http://www.chron.com/news/politics/article/Voters-extend-Metro-s-tax-sharing-plan-4014412.php)

Then how long do you think it will take for politicians in this area to come up with a plan, conduct environmental studies, create plans, solicit public comment, put funding on a ballot, win the ballot measure, put projects out to bid, construct the lines, test, and open? If you say anything under 15 years you're an idiot. So at a MINIMUM, assuming there's a consensus amongst our local politicians (and there isn't), rail is at least 25 years away. That means rail will have a short 15 years of being relevant before your own estimate of 40 years passes until driverless cars are widespread. We can all sit here and complain about rail not being made a priority, but you're ignoring the facts on the ground. We can't even touch the subject for 10 more years unless we receive federal funding (LOL). And by focusing on rail, you're basically damning everyone to traffic-hell for 25 years and stunting projects that SHOULD be worked on, like the HOV/HOT lane system that is proven to work well, but it needs TLC.

 
At 7:17 PM, May 19, 2015, Blogger John Hollis said...

Stop fulling yourself, driverless cars is a fairytale that certain people with agendas try and promote. Were talking about road prep highway prep designated lanes a road infrastructure that will cost billions to build. Driverless cars can not operate on streets with common vehicles. Your talking some back to the future type sh**. The military had gps over 30years ago , and its still in its imfancy with civilians. Point being that just because the technology exists, doesn't mean it will be available to the public in 10 years. HOUSTON AS A CITY WILL NOT EMBRACE THIS TECHNOLOGY. Heck, there afraid to extend the rail to the burbs. Only city of its size in the world that doesn't have an adequate rail system. Stop building in the middle of the streets. Houston in my opinion just leaves alot to be desired. The rail system that the city currently has is nothing more than a glorified streetcar system.

 
At 8:24 AM, May 20, 2015, Blogger Andrew said...

This is fun. "driverless cars is a fairytale". Well all those videos on Youtube are pretty good fakes. A lot like the moon landing, huh? I also must have hallucinated my test drive in the Acura RDX, which has radar all around and can basically drive itself in heavy traffic.

"Were talking about road prep highway prep designated lanes a road infrastructure that will cost billions to build."

Are rail lines free? HOV lanes already have right-of-way acquired for the most part. They're already there. Improving the lanes, extending those lanes to ALL employment centers, and improving the bus fleet and Park & Ride lots would cost many times less than a comprehensive rail system.

"Driverless cars can not operate on streets with common vehicles"

Yes, they can. Source: I've seen it. There are cars driving our roads right now that can do it. Yes, they're in early stages, but it is incredibly naive to think substantial progress won't be made in the coming decade or two considering ALL major car companies and many major tech companies have large teams working on this technology.

Further, with larger HOV lanes, it would be much easier to segregate driverless cars from regular cars during a transition period.

"The military had gps over 30years ago , and its still in its imfancy with civilians" (All misspellings yours).

Is it? You consider the fact that I can pick up a small computer the size of my hand that I store in my pocket, open a mapping program, and find out exactly where I am within a couple of meters "infancy". What else is GPS supposed to do other than... tell me my Position on the Globe?

"Point being that just because the technology exists, doesn't mean it will be available to the public in 10 years."

There you go with your timeline again. Your first comment mentioned "40 years". Which is it? Did I say anything about it being available in 10 years? No, I didn't. It is not unreasonable to think substantial progress will be made in 10 years considering the fundamental pieces of the technology are already on the road today and some of the most brilliant minds on earth are working on the rest.

I'm a little amused that you simply ignore my main point: the METRO referendum in 2012 forbids any $ from the General Mobility Program from being spent on rail... not even studies... until 2025. You're also ignoring the process for getting these projects planned, studied, commented upon by the public, put on a ballot, voted on, redesigned, bid upon, and constructed. You don't address any of that in your reply, just the standard "We aren't a major city until we have rail" arguement which is funny because not a single true Houstonian would give a damn what other people think about our city. We have very low unemployment, reasonable housing costs, and a thriving cultural scene. If we aren't a true major city until we have rail, as you claim, someone needs to tell all these people fleeing here from California, New York, and elsewhere that they're making a huge mistake.

 
At 8:55 AM, May 20, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Met with an MIT urban planning tenured professor recently, and he said he has seen the near future in person and it's autonomous vehicles/taxis. He said they're already rethinking city planning around it.

 
At 10:12 PM, May 22, 2015, Blogger John Hollis said...

I see that you just don't get it. The Acura RDX cannot drive itself. Did you allow the car to drive itself? Was you in the pasenger seat without anyone being behind the steering wheel. I would love to see it driving itself on the Katy feeway westbound at 5pm. Not happening. Rail is basically a mode to GET PEOPLE OUT OF THERE CARS. Houston is not the only city in texas that the masses are moving to. The DFW region is the fastest growing region in the country. An the fact that Houston cant expand on its rail till 2025 because of some poorly worded referendum , sorry for Houston. I've ridden the rails in Dallas an its a wonferful way to explore the region. With its 94 miles of light rail an its 2 commuter rail lines I could go from UNT in Denton to DT FtWorth without getting in a car, now that's wonderful. Not forgetting to mention that Dallas also has to street car lines that takes care of the uptown Dallas to Bishop arts district corridor. And with more rail on the way like FtWorth T rail going to DFW AIRPORTalso an the Cotton belt line that will connect with the FtWorth t rail at DFW AIRPORT will take passengers from there to the NE suburbs of adison an plano to wylie. Rail is the future an not driverless cars, but its a funny theory thoe. To many cities around the world an here in the states knows that rail is the best way to get around major cities but Houston seems not to understand it. I just wish Houston could be more proactive like Dallas when it comes to public rail transit. An by the way thugs aren't the only one's that uses public rail. Honestly I see more professionals an working class people on the trains anyway than thugs. The world doesn't revolve around your likes and dislikes. Sorry that you to sit next to minorities on the trains, I really thought Houston was past that way of thinking, WOW

 

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home